Finding the Right Words: An Account of Research for the Supplements to the Oxford English Dictionary
- Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America
- Dictionary Society of North America
- Number 8, 1986
- pp. 94-111
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FINDING THE RIGHT WORDS: AN ACCOUNT OF RESEARCH FOR THE SUPPLEMENTS TO THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY YVONNE WARBURTON Now that the fourth and final volume of the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary has been published, I find that I am spending more and more time talking to people about how the work was actually carried out. It is perhaps not too difficult to imagine how a definition is distilled from a set of illustrative quotations, but what I am often asked is how these quotations are found in the first place. The network of research on which so much of the quality of the Supplements rests has always suffered from a kind of invisibility in the final product. As the OED and its Supplements enter a new era in the shape of the New OED Project, it is inevitable that the immediate emphasis on the electronic manipulation of data will obscure even further this little-known aspect of our work. It therefore seems timely to describe some of our research methods and problems as they were experienced on the Supplements, and as they will no doubt continue to exist in our permanent battle to keep abreast of linguistic change. The quotations on which the Supplements were based came to us principally through a directed reading program and by voluntary contribution from outsiders. When a drafter was presented by a senior editor with a selection of quotations from which to construct an entry, it was nearly always necessary to supplement them from other sources in order to acquire a sequence illustrating fully the development of the new word or sense which was being dealt with and to provide the earliest example which could be found in print. It was also necessary to check the accuracy of every citation included in the final entry. To do this, the drafter had available initially the resources of the department's own reference library. But this, of course, was not enough, because our potential research material was the entire body of works ever published in the English language. To grapple with this situation, the drafter had to enlist the help of a network of staff employed as researchers in libraries. This is where I first started work for 94 Yvonne Warburton95 the Oxford Dictionaries in 1976, on the strength of my research experience in English literature and a professional qualification in Librarianship. I knew little about lexicography, but a lot about tracking down information. I was based in the Bodleian Library, with access in addition to various outlying faculty libraries. (I also regarded BlackwelFs bookshop as a legitimate hunting ground in the case of recently published books that had not yet found their way onto a library shelf.) There was one other person based there with me, and another two at the British Library in London. We also had one full-time and one part-time worker at the Library of Congress in Washington, as well as contacts, in case of need, in New York and Boston. Between us, there was not much we could not get hold of somehow. Work was roughly sorted before it was sent out to us, to make sure that it was going to the most likely location, but if we found that we could not after all do the work in one place, we could consult the catalogues of the other large libraries and pass it on to the most appropriate place. The work I received from the drafters could be loosely divided into three categories: straightforward checking of existing references, converting given references to a citation from first place of publication, and searching for further examples or information. I quickly found out that very little checking is ever completely straightforward. Many slips would contain inaccurate references or ones to untraceable editions. Our lives were made a misery for many years by a whole series of quotations from an unavailable edition of Moby Dick, with no chapter numbers. This meant frequent reading of the original British three-volume edition to trace the quotations, which were so brief as to contain no clues as to the content. We also had to contend with indecipherable handwriting and references hastily jotted...